No longer Kool, but just as hot: JVC Jazz Festival

THIS summer the Kool signs came down, and JVC signs went up, as the Japanese audio/video manufacturer stepped in to pick up the tab for New York's most prestigious yearly jazz event. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation, owners of Kool, pulled out after last year's festival, partly because of dwindling cigarette sales. And although the sponsor changed, the festival -- which started out as George Wein's Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 -- goes on.

The lineup this year included such regulars as Mel Torm'e, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, and Herbie Hancock.

There were some new faces, too: Brazilian pop artist Milton Nascimento, soul singer Anita Baker, and the Ganelin Trio -- the first Soviet jazz group to tour the United States [reviewed in these pages June 30].

There were tributes to Wild Bill Davison, Jelly Roll Morton, Nat King Cole, and the usual piano recitals.

Events outside of the city included a weekend at Saratoga Center for the Performing Arts, featuring a variety of jazz groups, a jazz picnic at Waterloo Village in New Jersey, and Lionel Hampton's band in concert at the Stamford Center for the Arts in Connecticut.

As always, a few events deserve special mention.

One -- a most pleasant one, indeed -- was the Count Basie Orchestra Cruise, produced by Musicruise 1986. The band was in rare form for the simple reason that Frank Foster, the saxophonist/composer/arranger, had just stepped in as its new leader. Foster, who succeeds Thad Jones (Jones held the post for one year) is unquestionably the perfect choice for the job. He not only sat in Basie's sax section for 11 years, but also arranged for the band.

It was clear on the cruise that Foster loves every minute of what he's doing. The band swung through Basie hits like ``April in Paris,'' ``One O'Clock Jump,'' Neal Hefti's ``Splanky,'' and ``Why Not?'' They also played Foster's ``Shiny Stockings'' and his fine arrangement of ``Take the A Train.'' The ensemble was tight and solid, and everyone on the boat was fired up -- especially Frank Foster.

David Chertok, jazz film collector, gave an outstanding program this year that included footage of Big Joe Turner with Stuff Smith in 1958; Coleman Hawkins with Earl ``Fatha'' Hines in 1965; Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in 1958 with Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter; Billie Holiday in London (circa 1954); several clips of the drummer Jo Jones; and a really amazing film of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-women's band from the 1920s.

The capper was Chertok's well-assembled tribute to Benny Goodman that began with clips from ``The Big Broadcast of 1937'' and ended with a touching scene of Goodman with Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa at a rehearsal in 1976, playing ``Goodbye.''

It's impossible to talk about the major concert performances without mentioning the atrocious quality of the amplification. This has become a problem, not just with this festival, but with many presentations of popular music in concert halls, outdoors, and even in clubs. As is the case generally, many of the festival concerts were over-amplified to the point of distortion, even discomfort. Much potentially fine music was absolutely sabotaged by this irresponsible approach. Worse, many people in the audiences -- although by no means all -- seem to have gotten used to this kind of assault on their ears.

Despite the bad sound, singer Anita Baker, who performed at Avery Fisher Hall with her band, proved to be one of the most exciting performers in the festival and one who seems destined to become a big star. The pop/soul singer from Detroit has an album out on Elektra, ``Rapture,'' which she helped produce and which is rapidly climbing the charts. But it's Ms. Baker's wonderfully deep, rich voice and superb mastery of that voice that set her apart from other black female singers. Although she's a pop artist, her idol is jazz singer Sarah Vaughan. That influence shows, but she also resembles, to a degree, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and even Joe Cocker and Michael McDonald. Nonetheless, Anita Baker is no stylistic mishmash -- she already has a sound that's all her own.

The Mel Torm'e/George Shearing evening -- a tribute to the songs of Broadway and films -- was eagerly anticipated, not just because of the consistently fine and enjoyable musicianship of these two men, but because of the debut of saxophonist Al Cohn's ten-piece band, the Al Cohn Tentette. As it turned out, the band was used mostly as a backup for Shearing and Torm'e, as well as for the young singer Angela Bofill. Unfortunately Ms. Bofill's performance was a major disappointment -- brassy and awkward. It's a pity her portion of the concert wasn't used to spotlight the Tentette.

Milton Nascimento, the Brazilian pop singer/guitarist, gave a fine show at the Beacon Theater. He's a spirited and appealing performer, who manages to combine Brazilian folk melodies and rhythms with African music, American rock, funk, and jazz, without eclipsing the pure folk sound. Nascimento sang in Portuguese, sometimes chanting and sometimes using his lovely falsetto. He was ably backed by his all-Brazilian group.

A nice touch to the evening was the surprise guest appearance of guitarist Pat Metheny. But once again, the over-amplified sound came close to ruining what was otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable performance.

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